“Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”
– President Barack Obama, January 24, 2012, “State of the Union”
Tuesday night President Barack Obama said what many teachers in America have been yearning to hear from their president: teachers matter, we change lives, and we do this hard work to make a difference in the lives of students.
He also acknowledged what every good teacher knows: that an accountability system that puts too much emphasis on test scores undermines a well-rounded education. But implicit in his speech was a challenge to America and to teachers to rebuild and strengthen the profession – a challenge that teachers are more than eager to accept.
As 2011 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we have heard from many teachers that the field has lost its luster. In our role as Teaching Ambassadors, we have talked with teachers in many groups, and we have heard real despondency over the constraints of NCLB that have caused schools to focus on testing and teacher evaluation in ways that are oppressive and rob our profession of much of the joy of teaching and learning.
We’ve listened to countless stories about a law that has raised standards without providing support for schools to meet them. And we have cringed when some of our most effective colleagues acknowledged that they can no longer afford to stay in a difficult profession that asks so much of them but barely affords a middleclass lifestyle. “We didn’t get into teaching to be millionaires,” they say, “but we have to be able to feed our families.”
What we like about the President’s speech is not that he acknowledges our grievances though, admittedly, it feels good to be heard. What appeals to us is that the President understands that as a country we must do much more than simply tweak a structure that is not working. Educators want to lead the transformation and rebuilding of teaching so that our work improves students’ lives and restores pride in our profession.
Teachers welcome this transformation. Neither students nor teachers are served by a structure that treats some teachers like interchangeable cogs in a machine. We long to lead our own profession because when we drive our craft, we will see huge shifts in the responsibility, leadership, pay and respect. As NEA President Dennis Van Roekel describes in the NEA’s December 8, 2011 Action Agenda to Strengthen Teaching, “The true essence” of our work “is putting teachers in charge of the quality of their profession.”
What would teachers do if they ran the schools? We would raise the bar for membership in our profession, recruiting the best candidates and insisting that teacher preparation programs become more rigorous and relevant. About 62 percent of all new teachers—almost two-thirds—report they felt unprepared for the realities of their classroom. As Secretary Duncan has said, “Imagine what our country would do if 62 percent of our doctors felt unprepared to practice medicine—you would have a revolution in our medical schools.”
A transformed profession would give teachers much more responsibility and flexibility to make decisions that meet their students’ educational needs–allowing access to and training with technology, shifting class sizes, and restructuring the school day so that they have time to collaborate with colleagues and engage in professional learning and problem-solving.
We would offer teachers a professional salary and career pathways that acknowledge their skill and commitment in one of the most complex, demanding, and important jobs in the world. We would insist on great school leaders, with principals who have high expectations, develop all teachers as lifelong learners, and create positive school cultures where students and teachers succeed.
As the President acknowledged, teachers are creative and passionate. But like workers in many other professions, we expect to be held accountable for results. We yearn to help create fair and thorough teacher evaluation systems and have access to data to make informed decisions about what is working and what isn’t, to direct our professional learning, and to help decide who stays in our profession. President Obama was right when he said, “That is a bargain worth making.”
Now more than ever, teachers long to lead their profession so that we finally resolve the important educational challenges in this country. A quarter of our children fail to finish high school on time and barely four in ten earn any type of post-secondary degree. For children of color, outcomes are even worse. When we see the statistics–that 7,000 students drop out of school every day–we feel pain for those teens and shame and guilt that we were not able to prevent this tragedy.
On top of that, school districts are getting ready to slam into an awful reality, that before the end of the decade, more than a million Baby Boomer teachers—fully a third of America’s teachers–will retire or leave the teaching profession. To recruit and retain the best teachers, we need to offer rewarding jobs and competitive salaries.
We were especially pleased to read in the Blueprint for an America Built to Last, released yesterday with the speech transcript, that the President plans to ask Congress for funding that will “challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to reform the entire teaching profession – from training and licensing to compensation, career ladders and tenure.”
Educators want to take on this work. As highly skilled specialists, we are not afraid of owning our profession. We are not afraid of being held accountable for results when we are given the responsibility and flexibility to craft our profession. We are confident that the President understands what it will take to transform teaching to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and we are eager to join with our colleagues across the country in moving the profession forward.
2011 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows Geneviève DeBose, Claire Jellinek, Greg Mullenholz, Shakera Walker, and Maryann Woods-Murphy.